Chapter 4: I Can't Come Down, I've Been Set Free
Page 70, bottom; on The Warlocks' first fans:
"The first fans were Connie [Bonner] and me and Bob Matthews, Barney [Laird Grant] and Bobby Petersen, says Sue Swanson, who still works at Grateful Dead Merchandising to this day. "Connie and I were pretty wild. We used to do all kinds of crazy things, and we were up for it all. We were not exactly the kind of girls who stayed home and behaved. We were gone, we were history. One of the things we used to do was practice getting into hotel rooms any band that came around we would break into their hotel rooms for practice so when The Beatles came to town we'd be ready! We always got in, too Eric Burdon & the Animals, the Dave Clark Five, Chad & Jeremy, Sonny & Cher, the Rolling Stones. I asked Keith Richards, 'I know these guys who have a band what can I tell them? What's your advice?' He said, 'Write your own songs.' So I passed along that information."
Page 71, middle; Sara on her trip to L.A. with Jerry:
"We went to the Pasadena Botanical Gardens [the Arboretum] because that's where the Tarzan movies had been filmed. We just had such a good time. And when we went to the La Brea tar pits, going past the museum there was a photo shoot going on this guy in a big furry vest and this skinny broad with long, straight black hair. It turned out to be Sonny & Cher posing for publicity shots. We didn't have any idea who they were!"
Page 72, top; Dave Parker of the first acid trip:
"In those days you could be wandering around and feeling the weirdest way imaginable and feeling obvious, but nobody would notice," adds Dave Parker. "It wouldn't even occur to somebody to think that you're on drugs. We were wandering around the house and in and out of the house and walking up and down the streets and around the block, looking up at the streetlights. Police cars would go by and they paid no attention. I remember feeling as demented and bizarre as I could imagine and then some, and yet it was all very soft and innocent walking around Palo Alto. There was no sense of threat or paranoia; it was all happy and wonderful, though very strange at the same time. I thought later what a weird scene that must have been for the other people in the neighborhood. But I'm sure it didn't look as weird as it felt."
"If you want to see how Jerry was a focal point of the scene," says Eric Thompson, "I remember at a certain point when we were coming onto the stuff, I was sitting with Nelson and he said, 'We've gotta go where Jerry is!' I have a clear memory of that."
Page 72, bottom; more on the history of psychedelics:
"These substances were always located in a tradition where the experience came along with a lot of cultural data," says Steve Silberman. "They were not substances that were used by some guy going off on a solo vision quest as much as they were generally used in a collective setting where the shaman or the elders of a tribe were initiating younger members of the tribe. It was usually certainly in the case of Huichol use of peyote or [American] Indian use of psilocybin a collective ritual that gave meaning to the community as a whole, so you didn't leave the community in order to have this experience.
"As anyone who has ever taken psychedelics knows, the context of a psychedelic experience has such a profound influence on the quality of the experience whether it's fearful and paranoid or loving and healing," Silberman continues. "So the context of psychedelic experience as people had it for thousands of years was one of intimacy, cultural approval, spiritual inquiry. There was tremendous patterning of the experience toward a shared sense of experience rather than an alienated, solitary one. I think it's significant that in cultures where these substances had been used in rituals that were very, very stable until, say, the conquest of the Aztecs and that sort of thing, that you would be there with your parents or your grandparents and you'd have this experience when you were an adolescent, so it wasn't something where you were disobeying the cultural norms in order to do it. It was more like a bar mitzvah in a sense," Silberman adds with a laugh.
Christian settlers in the New World were the first people to clamp down on the use of psychotropic plants by the native populations; indeed, one of the first laws handed down by the Holy Order of the Inquisition in Mexico was to ban peyote, which the Spanish linked to the devil, not to God.
Some 450 years later, in 1938, a chemist named Albert Hoffman was working at the Sandoz Pharmaceutical Company in Basel, Switzerland, with a fungus called ergot in an attempt to synthesize a chemical that would act as a blood circulation stimulant. He produced a substance called lysergic acid diethyl amide (LSD), which he turned over to Sandoz's pharmacological-medical department for testing on animals. When the lab technicians didn't see the results they were looking for, research on the substance stopped. Five years later, in 1943, Hoffman made a new batch of LSD in hopes of having it tested more extensively, but along the way he absorbed a small quantity of the chemical and "I suddenly went into a very strange, dreamlike state," he said. "Everything changed. Everything had another meaning, unexpectedly. I went home, closed my eyes and had some very, very vivid fantasies. I would think of something, and as soon as I did I could see it. It was wonderful."
Hoffman was intrigued enough by this accidental dosing that a few days later he ingested a very small amount, about 250 micrograms, and had a full-blown trip, which came on as he bicycled home from work. "There was a change in the experience of life, of time," he recalled. "One of its characteristics, just on this bicycle trip, was of not coming from anyplace or going anyplace. There was absolutely no feeling of time." Once at home, Hoffman said he "was in a very odd state of consciousness. The outer world had changed. The room seemed to be full of light, and colors were more intense. But I also had the feeling that I had changed, that my ego had changed. I was afraid that I had gone insane." After several hours of this sort of paranoia, during which he was watched over by a doctor who was, understandably, baffled by what Hoffman described, "the feeling began to change," Hoffman said. "I felt that I was coming back from this very strange other world back to our normal world. And I had the feeling ... that our normal world, which ordinarily we don't think is wonderful, was a wonderful world. I saw it in a new light. It was a rebirth. ... And when I came back I closed my eyes and had beautiful, colored visions. There was a transformation of every sound into optical figures. Each noise produced a corresponding colored figure, which was very enjoyable.
"Finally I went to sleep, and in the morning I was completely fresh. I had the feeling that I was seeing the world as it was on the very first day of creation."
Hoffman amazed his colleagues at Sandoz with his story, and further testing on LSD confirmed that it was a remarkably potent psychoactive substance, much more so than, say, psilocybin. "With one gram of crystallized LSD, you can have 10,000 to 20,000 doses," Hoffman said. "Now this is very significant pharmacologically, because to produce such a profound effect on your consciousness, your senses, from such a small dose, meant LSD must attack the very center of our consciousness, where all these things come together. Which means LSD works very specifically on our brain, on the very center of our psychic core."
Using that as a premise, the scientists at Sandoz began a series of psychological experiments with volunteers, giving LSD to both mentally ill and normal people to test its effects. In 1947, Sandoz began distributing LSD, under the name Delysid, to interested researchers, several of them in America, and almost immediately reports filtered back that the drug had been used with some success in treating alcoholics and schizophrenics. All through the '50s there were small pockets of doctors and scientists who conducted extensive tests using LSD and another powerful and somewhat similar hallucinogen, mescaline, so it's not surprising that at some point word about the remarkable consciousness-changing properties of these drugs began to spread outside of the scientific community. In 1953, the celebrated British writer Aldous Huxley became the first member of the literary intelligentsia to take mescaline, and a bit later, LSD. Huxley was so struck by his experiences, and by the spiritual dimension he believed the drugs opened up for him, that he wrote two books about it, Between Heaven and Hell and The Doors of Perception, which were widely read by college students and bohemians. In the late '50s, a number of celebrities and prominent figures, ranging from actors Cary Grant and Rita Moreno to writer Anais Nin to publishing mogul Henry Luce and his wife Claire Booth Luce, took LSD on numerous occasions, adding to the drug's hip, elitist cachet.
It was in Life, one of Henry Luce's magazines, that information about another strain of psychedelics first received mainstream press coverage. In May 1957, Life published an extraordinary 17-page story by an American ethno mycologist named R. Gordon Wasson about his ecstatic experiences in Mexico with "magic mushrooms." He described his trips in great detail, even going so far as to wonder, "Could the divine mushrooms be the secret that lay behind the ancient Mysteries?" Needless to say, this glowing write-up intrigued many readers, and over the next several years, a number of people traveled to Mexico looking for these mushrooms the natives called teonanacatl, or "God's flesh." Timothy Leary, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at Harvard, had been fascinated by Wasson's article, but when Leary traveled to Mexico in the summer of 1960, it was for a little rest and relaxation, not to hunt for fungus. Nevertheless a friend obtained some psychedelic mushrooms through an old Indian woman, Leary ate them, and what followed was "above all and without question the deepest religious experience of my life," he wrote in an essay called "The Religious Experience: Its Production and Interpretation." Meanwhile, Albert Hoffman, still working at Sandoz, managed to isolate and then synthesize the psychedelic component of the mushroom, which he called psilocybin, and Leary began to take an active role in researching the drug's effects and its potential as a psychiatric tool.
The new psychedelics found their way into the Beat world, too. Allen Ginsberg already had extensive experience with peyote when he first took LSD in 1959 at Stanford's Mental Research Institute. Ginsberg's acid experience was, on the whole, more nightmarish than beatific, but it was illuminating and overwhelming enough that he continued to seek out psychedelics. In fact, in 1960, under Timothy Leary's auspices, Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlovsky took psilocybin for the first time, and the poet's experience in the much more benign setting provided by Leary was considerably more rapturous. Ginsberg also obtained some of the drug from Leary and passed it around the Greenwich Village Beat and jazz scenes, where it had a deep and immediate impact. As Martin Lee and Bruce Shain observed in their book, Acid Dreams:
"[The Beats'] affinity for psychedelics reflected as much a desire to escape from a world they found unbearable as to tap the hidden realms of the psyche. Drugs were instrumental in catalyzing their rebellion against the overwhelming conformity of American culture. The Beats had nothing but contempt for the strictures of a society anally fixated on success, cleanliness and material possession. Whatever the mainstream tried to conceal, denigrate or otherwise purge from experience, the Beats flaunted. Their hunger for new sensations led them to seek transcendence through jazz, marijuana, Buddhist meditation and the frenetic pace of the hip lifestyle."
Along similar lines, Steve Silberman notes, "When psychedelics were rediscovered by Hoffman and Schultes and Wasson and all those people, they happened to be reintroduced into the culture at a time when there was a tremendous spiritual vacuum. Remember that Time magazine cover story, 'Is God Dead?' Well, a lot of the cool people in the '40s and '50s thought that God was dead. The hip intelligentsia not so much the Beats, who were self-consciously spiritual were into thinking that we were living in a post-spiritual age, where spirituality and certainly the direct experience of God was something that was no longer possible because of the construct of modern consciousness or the essence of contemporary being. The essence of contemporary experience was perceived as alienation from the sacred, or the notion that we no longer needed the sacred because now we had science. And yet there was also this tremendous existential dread because of the atomic bomb and the inarguable manifestation of human evil during the concentration camp period. So you had all these people who were living in a state that historically is completely unusual having no spiritual context for their lives. If anything, you could say that was wildly out of the mainstream of human experience to not have any sense of spiritual continuity or spiritual context for your experience. These chemicals were reintroduced during that time, and you don't have to read Alan Watts to know that you can get a spiritual experience from acid."
"Many people who took LSD, mushrooms and other psychedelics, often along with readings from The Tibetan Book of the Dead or some Zen texts, had the gates of wisdom opened to a certain extent," said Jack Kornfeld, a Buddhist teacher and author of A Path With a Heart. "They began to see that their limited consciousness was only one plane and that there were a thousand new things to discover about the mind. They saw many new realms, got new perspectives on birth and death, and discovered the nature of mind and consciousness as a field of creation rather than the mechanical result of having a body. Some opened beyond the illusion of separation to the truth of the oneness of things.
"But in order to maintain this vision they had to keep taking the psychedelics over and over. Even though there were some transformations from these experiences, they tended to fade for a lot of people. Following that some people said, 'If we can't maintain the highs of consciousness that come through the psychedelics, let's see if there is some other way.' And so they undertook various kinds of spiritual disciplines..."
Page 73, bottom; more on Phil in Las Vegas:
When Berio went to Europe in the summer of 1963, Phil and Tom Constanten moved to Las Vegas where TC's stepfather was the captain of waiters at the Sands Hotel hoping to earn enough money as waiters or busboys at the casino to join Berio in Europe. As it turned out, there were no jobs to be found, but TC's parents gave their son the money to go to Europe, leaving Phil to fend for himself in that strange, strange town. But he hooked up with one of TC's cool friends, Bill Walker, and found a job at the post office there, which even then was a refuge for the overeducated and incorrigible.
Toward the end of Phil's 10 months in Vegas, he worked the graveyard shift as a keno marker at the Horseshoe Club down on Fremont Street, and spent his days composing one piece he started there was a work for four orchestras (with the audience in the middle!) called "Foci"; another was a polyphonic piece for five groups of instruments, "each one of them playing essentially different music," he said. "That was another offshoot of [Charles] Ives."
From Las Vegas, Phil moved to Palo Alto. This was during Jerry's heaviest bluegrass period, and Phil was immediately struck by the progress Garcia had made as a player: "I was so astounded by Jerry's playing I've never yet heard anyone play the banjo like that. It was the most inventive, most musical kind of banjo playing you could ever imagine."
Page 75, middle; Garcia on The Warlocks:
"We drafted each other fundamentally. Weir and Pigpen and myself and Kreutzmann and Phil were all playing very different music to each other when we started out, when The Warlocks started. But it could work, and that was one of the things that turned me on about it, because I could include friends who weren't specifically in the music I was involved with, but I would rather play with friends than people I didn't know. See, if I was going to play bluegrass music I would be going off to play with people I didn't know and couldn't necessarily communicate with, except musically. The Southern musicians were really coming from a whole other world culturally, so while I would be able to play music and get off on that level, I wouldn't be able to just enjoy being with the guys."
Page 76, upper middle; more on Scotty Stoneman:
"He probably died of drinking hair tonic; he was one of those guys," Garcia said. "He grew up in bars, and when you're 14 or 15, the first thing you do in bars is drink. So playing in those razor-totin' bluegrass bars and getting involved in that whole country & western soap opera life took him away and he died pretty early. But his playing on the records he appears on mostly anonymously is this incredible blaze. He's like the bluegrass Charlie Parker."
Adds fiddler Richard Greene, who was in the Pine Valley Boys and was such a devotee of Stoneman's that he claims to have seen all of his performances with the Colonels during his brief tenure with the group, "Scott was the most brilliant genius to come out of that family. The rest of them were sort of clever, good old-timey musicians, but this guy was a raving madman genius. He was inarticulate in the extreme sort of an idiot savant almost. It's obvious to me why Jerry would have liked him so much. Scott's gift was being able to tap into this fire that's way, way inside. He was able to go down and get that and bring it back up onto his fiddle.
"Bluegrass and a lot of jazz like bebop is not really improvising in the truest sense. It's the reorganization of already known phrases. Scott's wildness was that he would put those phrases in really weird places, in songs behind singers or in a vocal break. He was the first guy and the last guy in bluegrass that I ever saw take two, three, four choruses in between vocals. You do that usually and you're kicked offstage. The fans won't even stand for it. But he'd stand up there and play another one and another one, introducing these ideas that he had, and everyone loved it. Look what the Dead did same thing."
Page 76, lower middle; Warlocks rehearsals:
The Warlocks rehearsed wherever they could, including in the homes of various friends' parents, Sue Swanson, Bob Matthews, Connie Bonner and Bob Weir, to name the core group. What kind of parents would put up with this unsightly rabble and amplified cacophony? Parents who aren't home during the day or have left town altogether for vacation. As Bob Matthews said, "Sue's parents would be out of town for the weekend and they'd practice over there. There was a night when my parents were out and they practiced in my living room. My parents found out, and to this day my mother still reminds me about the Thunderbird bottles in the garden" (courtesy of Mr. Pigpen). The band also enlisted friends like Laird Grant and Bob Matthews to help haul and set up the gear for The Warlocks' infrequent shows that summer.
Page 78, lower middle; Kesey and psychedelics:
"I've found psychedelics to be keys to worlds that have always existed, that have to be talked about," Kesey said in 1963. "The kaleidoscopic pictures, the geometrics of humanity that one experiences under, say, mescaline aren't concealed in the white crystals inside the gelatin capsule. They are always in the mind. In the world. Already. The chemical allows the picture to be seen. To know the world, you have to see as many sides of it as possible. And this sometimes means using a microscope, telescope, spectroscopes, even kaleidoscopes. ... Drugs didn't create those descriptions any more than Joyce's eyeglasses created Ulysses. They merely help one see the paper more clearly."
Page 78, bottom; more on the Perry Lane scene:
In the same book, [On the Bus] Gurney Norman, another novelist and former classmate of Kesey's, notes that "Drugs were a spice in the cake for Kesey. He'd rather talk about Melville and Moby Dick than about drugs."
Indeed, the focus of the scene was long literary discussions, not psychedelics (yet), and wine was actually the primary fuel. "These parties were full of life and laughter," Norman said. "It is hard to see anything the least bit decadent about them. They were very sweet and dear and above all extremely literary."
Page 81, middle; more on the bus trip:
"All through this film footage [of the trip], as you look at people's faces encountering us or encountering the bus, you don't see any hostility," Kesey said. "There was nothing to be afraid of. We weren't bringing anything to them that was a threat. We were just trying to show them that there was a way to enjoy yourself in America that was not the usual way. It hadn't been pigeonholed. ... It didn't occur to us when we went to Lake Pontchartrain [in Louisiana] and went into the blacks-only section that we were doing something that wasn't done. We were just high on acid. We weren't trying to make any trouble. We were just having a good time."
There were two notable misfires during the Pranksters' time in New York, and they are worth looking at because each shows the downside of the group's vaunted spontaneity, not to mention their almost total self-absorption. The Pranksters never let anyone forget that this was their movie literally and metaphorically that they were improvising every second, and, consciously or not, they tended to treat the rest of the world as extras in their film, as their juggernaut laid waste to everything in its path, benign though their intent may have been.
In one episode, Neal Cassady was recruited to roust his old friend Jack Kerouac, whom he hadn't seen in five years and who had become a bitter alcoholic, and bring him to a typically chaotic party the Pranksters threw for him and various other Beat figures in a Park Avenue apartment. Lord knows the Pranksters meant well they truly wanted to fete these folks who had inspired them (What was the bus trip but On the Road in extremis?). But Kerouac was turned off by the klieg lights and the young crazies with cameras and the tangle of wires that greeted him when he arrived not to mention the special seat on the sofa, bedecked with an American flag, they'd saved for him. It was not a good match: Kerouac was ill, uneasy and sullen that night. And though much has been made through the years about how this meeting represented some great passing of the torch from the Beat culture to what would become the hippie culture, first-person accounts of the night are invariably tinged with sadness, disappointment and regret.
In another case of bad timing for what must have seemed like a good, spontaneous idea, after the Kerouac party, at the suggestion of Allen Ginsberg, the Pranksters showed up unannounced at Billy Hitchcock's 63-room estate in Millbrook, an hour north of Manhattan, where Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, Ralph Metzner and other leading lights of the East Coast LSD scene conducted their ongoing "research" into psychedelics. Actually, Leary and Alpert truly were exploring the nature of psychedelics in a fairly organized and methodical way prepping users and guiding trips and making a genuine effort to accentuate the drug's spiritual potential and glean a greater understanding of human consciousness. Certainly the setting and approach at Millbrook was radically different from what the Pranksters were used to. Not that Kesey and Babbs and the others didn't appreciate the ontological ramifications of tripping it's just that they also got off on simply gobbling the stuff and then going crazy, entertaining each other, testing each other, messing with each other, just to see what happened, and with no greater purpose. Anyway, as Hassler (Ron Bevirt) said in On the Bus, "We rolled in [to Millbrook] and set off a green smoke grenade that blew green smoke right through the open windows into their house. And their house was kind of enveloped in green smoke. It was like the Huns coming to visit Camelot."
"Our situation was as follows," then-Millbrook resident Richard Alpert (now known as Ram Dass) said in the same book. "The night before there were about 20 of us. We had all done acid and it turned out to be a very intense and profound trip. ... By seven or eight in the morning, everybody was in a mellow, delicate, vulnerable space and drifting off to bed for the day. It was at this very moment that the bus drove up.
"It was perfect timing as usual. They had energy that was so disparate from what was going on at the house. They were very speedy. We were mellowing out. They were so preoccupied with their own agenda that I didn't feel that they really heard us at all. ... They came in with the idea that this was going to be a meeting between East and West, the acid tribes on the different coasts. I don't think our group was into any part of the myth."
"We had positive feelings toward Kesey's group," Leary said. "But we were aware that they were different. We used words like 'session' and we talked about 'lysergic acid,' and they were talking about 'tripping out on acid.' The language of the psychedelic culture came from the streets and the dance halls and the buses. They were making fun of us for being so formal. ... We learned from their tribal nature. A sense of humor ran through everything that the Kesey people did. They had a rollicking, good-natured, hit-the-road quality that we needed. We learned from that."
Page 82, bottom; full quote on Mountain Girl's psychedelic adventure at the lab:
"I started to get the hit that something was going on upstairs; that these guys weren't just drinking vodka, although there was plenty of vodka being drunk," she says. "So I just decided I was going to try one of these things that these guys were talking about. At the same time, the Stanford Art Museum had a display of these incredible shamanic artifacts from the anthropology department. And I really reacted to it to me that stuff was just humming; it scared me. But I was fascinated with it. So when I went back to work, I tried one of the drugs, which turned out to be this leafy African drug called ibogaine, and it fit right in with what I'd just seen, because ibogaine takes you to the land of the ancestors. It changes your head and initiates you into the channel of the ancestors. I ended up passing out at my workstation, and when my boss came in at 7:30 the next day, there I was. It was all very strange. Part of my job was that I ran this machine down there [for lab analysis], but after taking the ibogaine I couldn't remember how to run it anymore there were 12 steps, and after that I just couldn't remember them; nothing helped. I look back now and I wonder, what was I doing? This was a pure form of this drug, which I had no experience with. They had given it to me to handle and I was tempted and I tried it. I had auditory hallucinations for about a week after that and that was pretty spooky."
Page 83, lower-middle: M.G. on the bus trip movie footage:
"It was a total mess," Carolyn says. "There were too many tapes, too many boxes; it was utter chaos. Ken had lots of editing equipment and we were hand-splicing everything, but no one was really keeping track of what was happening in any sort of organized way. There were too many broken things; too many small fires to put out. But I got into the film thing and projectors. I really enjoyed fixing things and soldering and this and that. That sort of became my slot."
The retinue in La Honda changed from week to week and season to season. Cassady and his girlfriend Ann Murphy came and went, as did Kesey's brother Chuck, Babbs (who moved with a few of the Pranksters onto 400 acres known as "the spread" outside Soquel, near Santa Cruz), George Walker, Mike Hagen, Hassler and various others. Page Browning, the connection with the old Chateau scene, was often around, and after a certain point so was Paul Foster, fresh from jail and ready to smoke or ingest large quantities of any interesting substances that floated through the scene.
The most notorious Prankster party of the pre-Acid Test period came in August '65, when Kesey, through his journalist friend Hunter Thompson (who at the time was considerably straighter than the "gonzo" persona he adopted a bit later), invited the Hell's Angels down to La Honda for an acid bash. "Oh my God, that was the beginning of the end!" M.G. says with a laugh. "THE MERRY PRANKSTERS WELCOME THE HELL'S ANGELS" read a huge sign stretched across the bridge leading to Kesey's cabin. And though there was understandable trepidation among most of the Pranksters about bringing the Angels into their world, Ken Babbs said that "Instead of fighting the Hell's Angels, or being afraid of them, we managed to absorb them. I think it had to with the psychedelic expansion of consciousness. The Angels were surrounded by people who could be very peaceful, loving people, whose best natures were coming out, and who were learning to move and dance in crowds without creating any hostility or bummer vibes. It was the actual thing of finding the cool spot in everybody and letting that come out, rather than searching for the hot spot and pushing the anger button. The [bus trip] movie's title, The Merry Pranksters Search for the Cool Place, refers to this the cool place inside of people."
There was plenty of strangeness along the way during the two-plus days the party lasted, but basically the Angels liked acid, and this bacchanal marked, for better or worse, the beginning of an uneasy alliance between the biker world and the burgeoning psychedelic culture, two very different outlaw societies. Paul Foster, for one, was not particularly thrilled by the arrival of the Angels: "They're not good people," he says. "The Angels didn't play by Prankster rules. Anybody who felt differently got a quick fist to the chin and was out on the floor. They quite literally put Page unconscious. People are attracted to their weird charisma, but if you hang around them enough they dump on you and you get hurt. I was the only one who actually went to their meetings, because I was kind of their favorite."
Does Foster believe the Angels "got" LSD? "Yes, but I think it weakened them and they didn't like that. It changed them there were no more mean, tough guys after they'd taken a bunch of LSD. Then about two years later, drugs started to be a problem for them so they declared 'We're not druggies, we're outlaws.' I used to turn them on to DMT [a powerful though short-lasting hallucinogen that is usually smoked] quite regularly and one time I came around and they said, 'Paul, we don't do that anymore.'"